One thing that is not new to the human experience is suffering; it has always been a part of life. Suffering, hardship, pain, grief, and the sometimes unspeakable things that human beings do to other people, have always been part of human history. They have also been part of causing people to question or doubt the existence or God or led some people who had faith to stop trusting in and believing in God.
April 1, 2012
Isaiah 50:4-10, Mark 11:1-11, Relying on God
Doug Scalise, Brewster Baptist Church
Relying on God from BBC Staff on Vimeo.
Teresa of Ávila, the sixteenth century mystical writer, knew about suffering. In a particularly difficult moment of her life she was forced to cross a river while sick with fever. She raised her voice of complaint heavenward, “Lord, amid so many ills this comes on top of all the rest!” A voiced responded, “This is how I treat my friends.” “Ah, my God!” Teresa retorted, “That is why you have so few of them!” Some may feel it is in the fine print of the Christian contract, but following Jesus is anything but safe. In C.S. Lewis’s story The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, there is a description of Aslan, the lion, who is the Christ figure in the story. Mr. Beaver says, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Jesus is good but he is also one who suffers, which means even if following him at times isn’t safe, we can trust him and rely on him.
A prophecy of Isaiah puts a sharp question to those who hear it, “Will you identify yourself with the suffering One?” For some of us who have not had to suffer at all in our lives that question may cause some hesitation. For others, who have endured suffering, the idea that in our suffering we can better identify with Jesus and what he went through can help us grow closer to him and to those who are suffering. “Will you identify yourself with the suffering One?” This is the driving question of the fiftieth chapter of Isaiah. Listen to Isaiah 50:4-10,
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. 5 The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. 6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8 he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
10 Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God?”
Today’s scripture, on this Palm Sunday, prepares us for the torturous and difficult journey that Jesus will take and that we are about to take with him as we begin Holy Week. Like the disciples, our senses and hopes are disoriented. The Messiah we expected, triumphant and glorious, displays his triumph and glory in the paradox of suffering. Is this our Savior? Is this the one we expected to redeem Zion? Who wants to suffer, not anyone I know. It will take time to reorient ourselves toward God’s redemptive plan. It will take Easter for us to see that God fulfills his promises in the ways the Mighty One wants. But we are not there yet. Our text for the day from Isaiah, bring us to the third of what are called the “servant songs.”
In Isaiah 50 we see for the first time the depiction of the servant’s suffering and affliction. It is important to note that the Lord God or the Sovereign Lord has been with the servant through it all; he has taught him, sustained him, opened his ears to hear and understand. Note the things the Lord God has done for the servant: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” Jesus spoke with authority. People enjoyed listening to him. His mind was submitted to the Lord God so that He could learn His Word and His will (50:4). Luke (2:52) tells us Jesus grew in wisdom and John says that everything Jesus said and did was taught to Him by His Father (John 5:19, 30; 6:38; 8:28). He prayed to the Father for guidance (John 11:42; Mark 1:35) and meditated on the Word. What God taught the Servant, the Servant shared with those who needed encouragement and help. The Servant sets a good example here for all who know the importance of a daily “quiet time” with the Lord. Jesus frequently took time alone to pray – sometimes early in the morning, sometimes late at night, occasionally by the shore, other times in the mountains. He tried to hear and follow God’s will all the way to the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Lord God “has opened my ear” and the servant listens as those who are taught. The Servant’s will was yielded to the Lord God. An “opened ear” is one that hears and obeys the voice of the master. The people to whom Isaiah ministered were neither “willing” nor “obedient” (Isaiah 1:19), but the Servant gladly did the will of the Lord God. For Jesus this was not easy, it meant yielding His body to wicked men who mocked Him, whipped Him, spat on Him, and then nailed Him to a cross (Matt. 26:67; 27:26, 30).
Twice, the servant in Isaiah states, “The Lord helps me.” He says, I’ve not been disgraced and no one will declare him guilty. The Servant did all of this by faith in the Lord God (Isa. 50:7–11). Jesus was determined to do God’s will even if it meant going to a cross (Luke 9:51; John 18:1–11). He knew that the Lord God would help him. The Servant was falsely accused, but He knew that God would vindicate Him and eventually put His enemies to shame. Keep in mind that when Jesus Christ was ministering here on earth, He had to live by faith even as we must today. He did not use His divine powers selfishly for Himself but trusted God and depended on the power of the Spirit. Verses 10–11 of Isaiah 50 are addressed especially to the Jewish remnant, but they have an application to us today. God’s faithful ones were perplexed at what the Lord God was doing, but He assured them that their faith would not go unrewarded. It’s been said, “Never doubt in the dark what God has told you in the light.”
The servant is prepared for what comes by the hand of God. Because of this, he turns his face like a flint to his tormenters, just as Jesus turned his face to go to Jerusalem. While Judah in Isaiah is defined by rebellion (see Isaiah 1), the servant is defined by his obedience. He did not turn backward. He moved forward in the confidence of God, his sustainer and teacher. Like Teresa, however, the servant was not spared suffering in this moment. He is no Daniel sleeping comfortably on a lion’s mane. The servant enters deeply into the river of suffering.
The servant does this because of his confidence in the vindication of God. Accusers and tormenters may abound. Nevertheless, the servant places his hopes and trust in God alone. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. “Good” is still the right modifier for Good Friday because of the redemptive hopes attached to Jesus’ suffering and death. Friday, yes, but the clarifying word of Easter is coming.
The picture of Jesus in John’s gospel reflects the force of this third servant song. Jesus moves to the cross in the confident assurance of his Father. The Father’s teaching has instructed and sustained Jesus as we hear in John 12:27-28, “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”. The final moments on the cross witness to Jesus’ confidence. When Jesus knew that all had been accomplished, he cried out, “It is finished” and bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:30). The picture is of Jesus, God’s servant, confident in the will and ways of his Father for the redemption of the world and in the hope of his vindication.
Isaiah 50 ends with a pointed question: “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant?” Many of us are familiar with the images of this third servant song and how it sounds like the experience of Jesus. But the final question is a difficult one. Who will obey and identify themselves with this suffering figure? That requires some serious thinking and reflection. Paul wrote of his goal in life; “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11). What about us?
During this Palm Sunday we are invited once again to reconsider and reorient the way we think about our own humanity. How do I define myself as a person? During this Holy Week, Isaiah the prophet, encourages us to identify with Jesus Christ, the suffering servant savior. Paul tells us our true self is the one that is in union with Jesus (Galatians 2:20), and during this Holy Week we are called once again to walk into the realization of that union by identifying ourselves in obedience with One who is, was, and is to come.
Following Jesus isn’t safe. But we can be assured the one we follow is worthy and we can trust and rely on him, even when life is at its most challenging. A friend of mine wrote the following about trusting God in life’s toughest moments:
“Trusting God… is sometimes walking in the dark or even being still in the dark… when it feels like hope is distant. Dark is loud and holds us tightly… trusting God is doing what we can to take care of ourselves even when we don’t care… and we are too tired. Trusting God is opening our hand just enough that God can take hold, like a child would when afraid and not letting go. Trusting God is taking a risk and sharing our pain with someone… letting it out. Trusting God is seeking his presence every day, whether the darkness seems to get brighter , or not. Trusting God is gratitude for the rain. Trusting God is saying aloud, “He is with me”. Trusting God is opening up the blinds or shades and letting the day begin. Trusting God is trusting your caretakers, doctors, therapists, trusting God is taking action steps when you want to throw the blankets over your head and stay in bed. Trusting God is taking a risk… and allowing yourself to feel. God can help you with all of those feelings. Trusting God is looking for colors… when it feels black and dark. Trusting God is a daily choice.”
In his wonderful book, The Gift of Peace, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin reflected on his life goal, which was a prayer to God– “to let go of self and trust in you.” This is precisely what Jesus did and what we are supposed to do. The central event that creates, nourishes, and matures our community of faith is an act of humble, obedient service by Jesus. God sent Jesus, the gift of love, to earth in a lowly and humble way when he was born in a manger and grew up like every child.
Mark says on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus the Messiah came silently, humbly, and courageously into Jerusalem on a colt, willing to suffer and rely on and trust in the Lord God, offering to those who would receive him:
Love that is stronger than death,
Forgiveness greater than all our sin, and
Joy in the midst of our stress and strain, and grief and pain.
Let us pray that through this week we may share in Christ’s suffering, dying and rising.
Almighty God, in your tender love towards us you sent your Son to take our nature upon him, and to suffer death upon the cross; grant that we may follow the example of his great humility and share in his glorious resurrection:
through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.